While it is now widely known that Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the Catholic Church in the United States, Latino children continue to be underrepresented in Catholic schools. There are an estimated 14.5 million Catholic primary and secondary school age children in the United States, eight million of whom are Latino, according to a 2016 Boston College study. Yet less than 4 percent of them attend Catholic schools.
There are many reasons for this. The total number of students enrolled in U.S. Catholic schools is less than 1.9 million, a fourth of the total number of Latino children. Moreover, the majority of schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, while most Latino children are in the South and West. While most Catholic Latinos were born in the United States, many immigrant families come from countries where Catholic education is only for the wealthy. They may not even have considered it an option.
The underrepresentation of Latinos in Catholic schools is no small matter. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2015 that half of all U.S. adults raised Catholic leave the faith at some time in their life. But children who attend Catholic primary schools are more likely to remain Catholic as adults and more likely to consider a vocation to religious life or the priesthood, according to Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Thus the low Latino enrollment in Catholic schools could help explain the low number of Latinos ordained to the priesthood.
Beyond religious vocations, the National Catholic Education Association reports that nearly all students who attend a Catholic high school graduate. Of those, 86 percent go on to a four-year college. Knowing that the future of the church will largely be in the hands of Latinos, it is paramount that Catholic schools help form them in the faith and help them become our future leaders.
To do this, the church needs to foster a culture of Catholic education among Latino communities. Catholic school leaders must take it upon themselves to know their community demographics and cultivate relationships with community members. Catholic schools, through their curriculum and environment, ought to be places where Latino children feel at home. This culture of encounter in Catholic schools should also permeate Catholic colleges and universities, where Latinos make up only 11 percent of the student body.
The underrepresentation of Latinos in Catholic schools is no small matter.
Since these steps will increase Latino enrollment, the church will need to build more Catholic schools, especially in the South and West. The church in the United States has everything to gain by taking these steps. Over the last 70 years, Catholic school enrollment has plummeted from five million to less that 1.9 million. Latino communities are steeped in family values, respect for elders and hospitality. Their vibrancy can reinvigorate the Catholic school system and the church as a whole.
This is a time to celebrate once again the goodness of the many great cultures God has brought together in the United States. The church is on the verge of a new springtime.
The church needs to develop a comprehensive strategy to catechize all Catholic students, whether or not they are enrolled in Catholic schools. Let this school year be the beginning of the paradigm shift we need to start becoming a church that welcomes immigrants not just through the doors of our churches but also into our classrooms.